It is always ominous when a huge star’s “people” keep secret what bad things are happening to them. Recently Aretha Franklin had a secret surgery that nobody wants to tell us exactly what organ the surgery was performed upon. I guess that is her perogative; however, when you are an icon, with millions of adoring admirers around the globe, I believe you owe them more respect than a vague press release, or some bullshit from Jesse Jackson. Maybe they surgeried some of that weight off of her! It isn’t embarrassing to be less than perfect anymore, yet slimmer is better for your heart.
It is obvious to me that Aretha Franklin’s health is in trouble; pancreatic cancer is the “word”. Two of my radio mentors passed away due to that, “Hmmm”. As I have said previously, I’d rather not write about her posthumously, choosing to send my recollections from my collection with the hope that they reach her hospital bed and possibly aid her recuperation and longevity because she is one of my first favorites!
“Ree-Ree” (as I heard one of my radio mentors call her affectionately), my Mum even says you’ve gained too much weight, by the way! Mum can say that, she is eighty-six. Funny thing about that to me is that at first she did not want me to listen to your hit music, “Respect” when I was a boy, calling it “gut-bucket music”. Fortunately, those kinds of protestations from my parents just made me want to defy them more and get into your music.
When I think of Aretha Franklin, I see that classic black and red (unless a promo copy) Atlantic Records label even though she recorded on several major record companies. My first of hers was “Respect”, (wouldn’t you know it) followed by “Chain Of Fools” and “Spanish Harlem” as I dig though my boxes of 45s (45rpm vinyls, for you who are too young). The first album I added to my collection was 1970’s “Aretha Live At Fillmore West” – still in excellent condition, thank you – which featured the late Billy Preston on organ, Ray Charles and King Curtis on tenor saxophone among other members of an all-star band behind her. Aretha Franklin always brings to my mind the great musicians that she has worked with through the years. Cats like Cornell Dupree on guitar, The Memphis Horns, and since I was a novice drummer back during her early hits, drummers like Grady Tate and especially Bernard “Pretty” Purdie, who really defined the rhythm of her sound on tracks like the 1971 smash, “Rock Steady”, or how he wore it out behind one of Aretha’s classic, classily clear vamps til the fade on her 1973 “Master Of Eyes”. Perdie’s signature snare-to-high hat accents always let me know that he was on the set. Fortunately I have had the privilege of meeting Mr. Dupree and hanging out many nights with Mr. Tate over the past twenty years in Manhattan (The ole “Possible Twenty”!). I still hope I can do an interview with The Queen Of Soul when the time soon comes.
Almost everybody knows the words to an Aretha Franklin hit song. I was at a holiday party just the other night where we all broke into the lyrics of another one from ’73, “Until You Come Back To Me, (That’s What I’m Gonna Do)” penned by Stevie Wonder! (I bet you didn’t know that!)
I grew-up with Ms. Franklin’s music on WWRL AM,WLIB AM/FM and WBLS FM (Program Director Frankie Crocker always played album cuts from her, not just the singles) in New York City, a phenomenon of style the made inroads on radio formats across the U.S. and across the great pond. Therefore, I’m going to be kind of all over the place here if I don’t get a grip, as Aretha conjures so many different situations, hits , emotions and memories from my musical mind. Admittedly she came up in an era where the competition of talent was the toughest and the dealings between major record labels was fiercest. Most of the “soul” artist stars were on Motown, and here Aretha came as an equal in every way to the Gordy’s stable. Mentored and chaperoned by the best including Arif Mardin, Jerry Wexler and Clive Davis, a session with her recording must have been pure magic!
Aretha was kind of an afterthought with me as a teenager; she was always “there” in the background of the scene as most of the “great ones” are, until she would put something new out, and then “BANG!” we’d be right back singing to her songs and dancing to her energy within the beat. There are too many songs to name here, so let’s quickly see what else I have in my vinyl crates: “With Everything I Feel In Me” is the 1974 album with one of her sexiest covers, wearing nothing but what looks like a mink stole under that neat Afro hairdo. Everything she touched on this album brought a fresh feeling, and I loved her rendition of Bacharach and David’s “You’ll Never Get To Heaven”. She always seems to really enjoy her voice and the things she can do with those lungs as proved by the acapella end solo on that cut.
The next album in my collection is “You” released in 1975 which featured “Mr. D.J.(5 For The D.J.)” [obviously dedicated to yours, truly] an homage to the burgeoning trend of disco jocks back then, “It Only Happens (When I look At You)”, a Tom Scott saxophone solo on “Without You”, which was also released as a single, and Ree-Ree’s excellent soft touch on the late Van McCoy’s “Walk Softly”. You can tell she was jamming with a new bunch of musicians on this album – they were not as soulful as the previous albums were, but not a bad change necessarily. I see that I underlined Whitney’s mum, Cissy Houston on the back of the album noted among the background singers! Aretha would lay down a good monologue to introduce her songs every so often, too!
I don’t want to keep you up all night, and this is the internet, so let me say the remaining Aretha albums in my vinyl library are the widely successful 1976 movie soundtrack “Sparkle” featuring “Giving Him Something He Can Feel”; “La Diva”, a rare stiff from 1979 with another sexy cover photo, the jazzy “Aretha Sings The Blues”, which looks like a 1985 “ree-release” (couldn’t resist that one) of some early 1960s songs on Columbia Records. It is either nightclub material or they added the “feel” of an audience in the background with sfx. Last-but-you-know-what, the 1982 album produced by the late Luther Vandross which includes two of my all-time favorite jams, “Who’s Zoomin’ Who?” and the title track floor-filler, “Jump To It” – I’ve even got the “12-inch” D.J. versions!
So, what is your favorite Aretha song? You may most recently remember her from President Obama’s inauguration day when she sported that stylish gray brim while giving proper “respect” to “America The Beautiful”, but let’s just talk music here – music, prayers and get well blessings to the Queen. We are pulling for you to stay around a while, Girl!!